FREE DOWNLOAD: MIDI Basics
By Ethan Winer
This download is a free bonus chapter written by Ethan Winer that covers MIDI internal details in depth, including hardware protocols, and data formats and their use of channels. The standard General MIDI instruments and drum notes are also listed, along with miscellaneous MIDI tidbits such as MIDI file types, nonregistered parameters, and using Sysex to back up custom settings on MIDI hardware.
Below is an excerpt from this bonus chapter.
MIDI Internal Details
MIDI stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface. It was developed by a consortium of musical product manufacturers to create a common language and protocol for musical software and hardware to communicate with each other. Before MIDI, the keyboard of one synthesizer brand could not send note data to another brand of synthesizer, nor was there a standard way to connect sound modules to the early computers of the day. I recall a session in 1982 when composer Jay Chattaway recorded the music for the movie Vigilante at my studio. The music was hard hitting and created entirely with early hardware synthesizers and samplers. For the week-long sessions Jay brought to my studio a very elaborate synthesizer setup, including a custom computer that played everything at once. It was a very complex and expensive system that took many hours to connect and get working.
MIDI changed all that. The original MIDI Specification 1.0 was published in 1982, and while it still carries the 1.0 designation, there have since been many additions and refinements. It’s amazing how well this standard has held up for so long. You can connect a 1983 synthesizer to a modern digital audio workstation (DAW), and it will play music. Indeed, the endurance of MIDI is a testament to the power of standards. Even though the founding developers of the MIDI Manufacturer’s Association (MMA) competed directly for sales of musical instrument products, they were able to agree on a standard that benefited them all. If only politicians would work together as amicably toward the common good.
As old as MIDI may be, it’s still a valuable tool because it lets composers experiment for hours on end without paying musicians. MIDI data are much smaller than the audio they create because they’re mostly 2- and 3-byte instructions. Compare this to CD-quality stereo audio that occupies 176,400 bytes per second. When I write a piece of music, I always make a MIDI mockup in SONAR first, even for pieces that will eventually be played by a full orchestra (heck—especially if they will be played by a real orchestra). This way I know exactly how all the parts will sound and fit together, and avoid being embarrassed on the first day of rehearsal. Imagine how much more productive Bach and Haydn might have been if they had access to the creative tools we enjoy today.
MIDI is also a great tool for practicing your instrument or just for making music to play along with for fun. Google will find MIDI files for almost any popular or classical music you want. You can load a MIDI file into your DAW program, mute the track containing your instrument, and play along. Further, a MIDI backing band never makes a mistake or plays out of tune, and it never complains about your taste in music either.
The always colorful, widely followed Ethan Winer has, at various times, worked as a studio musician, computer programmer, circuit designer, recording engineer, composer/arranger, technical writer, and college instructor. He’s had nearly 100 feature articles published in audio and computer magazines including Mix, PC Magazine, Electronic Musician, EQ Magazine, Audio Media, Sound on Sound, Keyboard, Pro Sound News, and Recording. Ethan is also the author of the book The Audio Expert, recently published by Focal Press.